Chawls are a quintessentially Mumbai phenomenon, whose rise is inseparably linked to the rise of the textile mills. The textile mills were the next big industrial step that Mumbai took after the spurt in cotton trading and the shifting of the ports.
The mills flourished in the mid-19th century and the people who worked there were labourers mainly from the Konkan coast and ghats. Often one of the workers is sent back to the villages to recruit more people. These workers are known as ‘jobbers’ and they usually get back people who are from the same family or same village or caste. Once in Mumbai, they live together. Some chawls are built by the government called the Bombay Development Directorate (BDD) chawls and the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) chawls. The mill owners built other chawls to lure people to come and work for them, or by private landlords. Many private landlords who built chawls are Muslims, as according to their religion they couldn’t collect interest from money. So this is a way of investing the money. Originally, the migrants come alone to work and leave their families in the villages. So often the rooms are occupied by a different set of workers at different times of the day. When one shift end, one set of people come to the rooms while the other set of people went to work. When the workers brought their families, the entire family and often more than one family stayed one room.
Chawls had mushroomed in the 30s to the 70s all over Mumbai. Mumbai was once the textile capital of India even being named Manchester of the East. Cloth mills dominated the skyline of Mumbai till the 90s. It was during these times that people from rural Maharahstra migrated to Mumbai in search of a better jobs and prospect. Landlords cashed on this new influx and built low cost housing called chawls. The idea was to get as many people in one building so as to increase the amount of rent. It was quantity not quality that was important.
The chawls have fair amount of wood in their structure, the dark stairs made the distinct wooden sound while walking. Common toilets dominated each floor. Leaking pipes and stagnant water gave the dingy chawl a distinct smell of its own.
The dark corridors and the low sunlight was so typical of a chawl.
The Chawl building have a total of 80 houses and two wings so it was 40 houses on each side. Instead of calling each wing as ‘A’ and ‘B’, they call them Magchi (back side in Marathi) and Phudchi (front side in Marathi) side. The funny thing is that the people living in the other wing would call them magchi side and the people living in the other wing would call them “magchi” side. each house sharing a common long balcony. The common balcony would give the 4 houses a sense on one-ness. It was like a big joint family.
Each house obviously has a door and this door is open in the morning and remains open till they all go to sleep. They play, they talk, they study, they fight, they do everything in that long balcony. You don’t even have to go and knock on your neighbor door. He is there standing in that balcony.
Balcony has a big importance in the life of chawl. It is what a village square was in the old days. This is what the katta is in modern Mumbai. Consider that almost 6-16 families live on a floor. Considering each family has an average of 4 members, the number of people residing on a floor is 24 to 64. The balcony serves as a meeting ground for all these people.
The housewives gather in the balcony after their house chores discussing gossips about the girl next door to their children’s annual result to everything in general. The men discuss the latest politics to the irresponsibility of the youths today to the latest in cricket. The children meanwhile played in the balcony.
The balcony is a common meeting ground for all families on that floor. Its like a drawing room for members of a big joint family.
When there is a long...